Thursday, December 18, 2014

Best essential oil products for bed bugs

If you're a pest management professional in the bed bug business, I suspect the last thing you might want to hear about is a good consumer treatment for bed bugs. But the latest study published the Journal of Economic Entomology by Changlu Wang's lab at Rutgers University may hold a little good news for everyone.

In the study results recently reported in PCT magazine, Narinderpal Singh, Wang and Richard Cooper identified two low-toxicity, over-the-counter products that are surprisingly effective against both bed bugs and their eggs. EcoRaider™ and Bed Bug Patrol™ are essential oil-based insecticides available both in retail stores and via the Internet.

One of the experimental setups used in the Singh et al paper in
the Journal of Economic Entomology. Laboratory tests are
not always good predictors of what will work well under real
world conditions; but they are most useful in identifying
products less likely to work well.
The researchers looked at nine plant oil-based products and two detergents marketed for bed bug control.  In the first evaluations bed bugs were sprayed directly with the 11 products, as well as with the pyrethroid standards Temprid® SC and Demand® CS. Only two of the consumer products provided greater than 90% control.  A product called EcoRaider™ (1% geraniol, 1% cedar extract, and 2% sodium lauryl sulfate) provided 100% control of bed bug nymphs after 10 days. A second product, Bed Bug Patrol™ (0.003% clove oil, 1% peppermint oil, and 1.3% sodium lauryl sulfate) provided 91-92 percent mortality after 10 days in two trials. These essential oil products were slower than the professional insecticide Temprid® SC, but after 10 days they provided the statistically same control as Temprid®.

We all know the toughest life stage of bed bugs to kill is the egg. Singh et al. applied each of the sprays directly to exposed 2-3 day-old eggs.  EcoRaider™ controlled 86% of eggs, better than any other product, including the professional standards which gave less than 17% control.

Of course a good insecticide should not only kill on direct contact, but should leave a residue that continues to kill, and not repel, after it dries. Singh and colleagues pitted EcoRaider™ and Bed Bug Patrol™ against the two pyrethroids by confining bed bugs for five minutes on one-day old residues on cotton fabric. They then removed the bugs, placed them in clean dishes and observed. After ten days, EcoRaider™ and Bed Bug Patrol™ provided an impressive 93% mortality, equivalent to Temprid® SC, and significantly better better than Demand® CS. However when bed bugs were allowed to choose between resting on treated or untreated surfaces, the two professional products were significantly better.  

So don't dump your Temprids, Transports and Tandems just yet. Bed bugs always have a choice where to rest and walk in the real world, and these results suggest that when given a choice they might avoid spots treated with plant-oil products. And even the researchers admit that all spray exposures in this test were applied under ideal conditions. It's likely that results in the field, where bed bugs are almost always protected in cracks and crevices of furniture and bedding, will not be as good. Perhaps most importantly, even the best bed bug treatments miss directly contacting all bed bugs.  Hence residual control is very important and rightly remains the holy grail of bed bug control.  Today's modern insecticides may not always excel at long-term residual control of resistant bed bugs; but they are likely to be better than the best essential oil-based insecticide. The plant oil-based sprays in this test were only aged for a day, and given the volatility of plant oils I would not expect them to last much longer.

Nevertheless, low-toxicity "organic" pesticides have established a strong niche in the professional pest control business today. I applaud the efforts of the Rutgers researchers in sifting through the many "natural" products vying for bed bug market share. Singh et al's work may not be the last word on the subject of which green products work and which don't; but the methodology appears sound and the work thorough.  Based on what I read in the paper, if I were looking for a green insecticide to supplement my bed bug program (even one that was available to consumers), I would take a hard look at their top two performers.

The other insecticides evaluated in this study included Bed Bug Bully, Bed Bug Fix, Ecoexempt IC2, Essentria, Rest Assured, Green Rest Easy, and Stop Bugging Me. The two detergents tested included Eradicator and Bed Bug 911 Exterminator.

Please note that mentions of trade names in this article does not imply endorsement, but are included for educational purposes only.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Most common inspection failures

Inspections are never fun, but are mandated for every school
district, non-commercial applicator and commercial business
in Texas.
If you own or work for a pest control business, you know that it's no fun getting inspected. So many things can go wrong!  To make things worse, if you mess up, chances are that you'll see an inspector again soon, much sooner than if you pass with flying colors.

Fortunately, you don't need to have a bad inspection. At last month's Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee meeting, the good folks at TDA provided a list of the most common mistakes being found by regulatory inspectors during routine business and school inspections.  As you'll see, most of these mistakes relate to paperwork and record keeping--stuff that's relatively simple to correct.  So as the end of the year approaches, it might be a good time to use these  non-compliance lists as checklists to see where your team stands. Take the test and see if you pass:

Most Common Mistakes for Commercial Pest Control Businesses in 2014
Most Common IPM Rule Mistakes for School Districts in 2014
  • Are you creating and maintaining records showing approval of use of Yellow Category pesticides? (d)(6)(B)(ii)  (30% failure rate)
  • Do you maintain written guidelines defining action thresholds (a)(1)(f), at least for your key pest problems?  (24% failure rate)
  • Are you maintaining your IPM records for two years (b)(3)(B)(do you even have all your records?)? (16% failure rate)
  • Do you have a system for storing and retrieving all records (b)(3)(B) of facility inspection reports, pest-related service reports, pesticide applications and pesticide complaints?  (14% failure rate)
  • Do you keep training records for all employees approved for incidental use of pesticides?  (10% failure rate)
  • Would you be ready to provide all your IPM program records on the spot to an inspector if they were to request them? (b)(3)(B) (9% failure rate)
  • Are you creating and maintaining records showing approval of use of Red Category pesticides?  (d)(6)(C)(ii) (8% failure rate) 
  • Have you the IPM Coordinator provided the required training for any employee on the District making incidental use applications of pesticides?  (e.g., electricians carrying wasp spray for when they open electrical panels with a wasp nest inside) (8% failure rate)
  • Do you have a plan for educating your employees about their role in an IPM program? (a)(1)(E)  Note, this includes teachers, administrators and staff outside your pest control staff.  (8% failure rate)
  • Do you have a pest monitoring program in place? (a)(1)(B) Word to the wise: if you don't have properly-maintained sticky cards in your school kitchens you definitely do not have a monitoring program! (8% failure rate, and I'm surprised this isn't higher)
  • If you're a new IPM Coordinator, have you got proof of taking your 6 hour mandatory IPM Coordinator training?  BTW, we can help with that. (8% failure rate)
  • When any pesticides are applied outdoors, is your staff in the habit of posting pest control signs  (d)(2) at the time of application until the minimal reentry time?  (8% failure rate)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What's going on with pest control in Texas?

Who wants to go to a committee meeting?  Especially if you're not on the committee? So if visitor counts are any indication, either things are pretty slow in Austin these days or the Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee is a hot ticket right now. Most visitor chairs around the room were full at last month's meeting in the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) headquarters building.  

Texas Structural Pest Control Advisory Committee at work
Bad picture, I know.  But here's proof that
the SPCAC was hard at work last month
at the Texas Department of Agriculture
offices in Austin.
October 30 was the first followup meeting to last spring's lively session focused mostly on TDA Structural Pest Control Service's (SPCS) enforcement activity.  It's no secret that many in the industry feel that "the bad guys" (shady pest control companies operating under the radar and outside the rules in Texas) are not being sufficiently policed by regulators since the former Structural Pest Control Board merged with the Texas Department of Agriculture and formed the new SPCS division.  Based on what I heard at this meeting, I think the TDA has heard those complaints, and is responding, especially when it comes to fumigations.

Several inspection issues were brought up and solutions suggested at the meeting.  Pretreatment notifications have historically been a slow and cumbersome process with inspectors often not receiving word of a planned termite pretreatment until it was starting or already completed. According to official Mike Kelly, the department wants to bring this process online for increased speed and efficiency. This will allow pest control companies to go online to report a pretreatment appointment, and will allow inspectors to get electronic notifications of all planned pretreatments twice a day.  Current rules require operators to call, email or FAX notifications to the department. Last year there were 6,275 notices of termite pretreatment and 1,076 fumigation notices received...a lot of office time.  This change in procedures could save significant staff time handling notifications. Lots of smiles around the table!

Most of us were especially interested in a followup report from last spring's discussion of a May 2013  apparent violation by a fumigator that occurred in Boerne, TX and was detailed at that time by committee member Warren Remmey.  Mike Kelly of TDA explained some of the circumstances around the event including lack of evidence to verify that the fumigator was actually carrying gas cylinders when delivering tarps to a home in an unmarked truck (a violation of SPCS rules). After the meeting the inspector on the site, Kelly reported, the fumigator claimed that the reason no notification was filed was because a truck carrying gas was delayed with mechanical problems, and he didn't know when it would arrive--skeptical looks around the table. Nevertheless the tarps that were installed on the day of the incident remained in place over the house more than a week before the gas arrived and the SPCS was finally notified, and attended the fumigation. 

No citations were issued in the case (no smiles around the table), but Kelly reported that steps have been taken to improve training and enforcement of fumigators by their inspector staff.  For one thing, Larry Riggs of Ensystex, a former regulator, has agreed to help provide fumigation training for inspectors.  Dr. Rudy Scheffran at the University of Florida will also host four inspectors at his fumigation training school in Florida this year. TDA has also formed a task force to advise the agency on fumigation-related issues. Debbie Aguirre of Elite Exterminating, Corpus Christi, has been leading the group. Since the April 11 meeting, TDA has conducted 11 fumigation inspections.  The committee thanked Kelly and the staff for responding to concerns from the last meeting, especially the training initiatives for inspectors. The committee was smiling again.

After this Debbie Aguirre presented suggestions from the task force for changes to the structural fumigation requirements.  One of the major problems her team has identified is that companies often subcontract or sub-sub-contract fumigation jobs, and its not always clear who is the responsible party is when communicating instructions to the customer and when planning the job. TDA staff have agreed to review the fumigation committee suggestions and bring back legally suitable language for a second review by the SPCAC.  

Kelly also announced that TDA is planning to eliminate fees for CEU course sponsors.  Currently anyone organizing a CEU class must pay TDA a $48 fee for each CEU provided.  Kelly says the department has determined these fees were not necessary and will be eliminated.  I sensed CEU providers all over the state smiling at this one.

Also bringing smiles to all the PMPs on the committee was a proposal to change the long problematic rule on advertising.  A problem with this rule has been that the rule was written to require licensed companies to not use false or deceptive advertising. The current wording makes it difficult for the department to penalize unlicensed operators from making false or deceptive claims online or in newspaper.  The advertiser would have to be actually observed making a pest control treatment to be penalized under the existing rule.  Two new paragraphs will be added to the section expanding the rule to apply to anyone offering to perform pest control services. In addition all advertisements must include the official business name as listed on the business license. The committee objected to an additional requirement to include the business license number on all advertisements, and it was removed.  

Also in response to requests to provide more information about enforcement actions, Stephen Pahl introduced new staff members including new chief counsel Martina Berrera, a former prosecuting attorney and judge.  She has been with the department for two months and is eager to get to know the industry and work to address concerns. She replaces outgoing counsel David Gibson.   

The SPCS includes both "Program staff", including inspectors, and "Enforcement staff". Program staff are required by law to conduct 480 inspections of non-commercial applicators, 200 use observations of structural licensees, 950 commercial business inspections.  In addition they must inspect approximately 250 school districts each year.  Also program staff must respond to complaints (46 so far in FY2014). Not all violation cases investigated by program staff get turned over to enforcement.  In 2014, we learned, program staff forwarded 40 cases involving unlicensed activity to Enforcement. For schools with unlicensed activity a non-compliance advisory letter is usually sent without a fine.  For violations at commercial businesses and non-commercial locations, Enforcement may issue a Notice of Violation (NOV), a warning, or take no action (e.g., when a business has shut down or the complainant may not be willing to pursue the case).  

Numbers of consumer complaints (46) have decreased significantly this year from prior years (ave. 181 per year 2011-13).  Although the agency reports that the number of consumer complaints have been decreasing for the past 12 years, this year's large drop appears due largely due to the department no longer accepting consumer complaints about poor service or failure of a company to control pests. Now the only complaints accepted for investigations are those involving possible infractions of the rules or law. As I see it, this amounts to a significant change in policy, redirecting the agency away from  consumer advocacy, to being a law enforcement agency only.  These changes appear to be necessary given tighter budgets over the past several years.  Mostly blank faces on the committee.

Visitors who attend these committee meetings do get an opportunity to comment if they wish.  Don Ward left a comment from the Texas Pest Control Association suggesting that SPCS host a class for pest control office staffers to appraise them of what they can and can't say and do.  He also indicated TPCA support for the advertising changes. Bryan Springer with Bevis Pest Control, Houston, commented that with all the regulations and safety requirements in place, the safety record of professional fumigation is good.  Harvey West of Coastal Fumigators, Houston, encouraged SPCS to provide and train inspectors to carry fumigant gas measurement devices to ensure accurate dosing of commercial fumigations.  He also urged the department to do something to discourage the practice of allowing spot treatments for drywood termites to suffice for passing real estate transactions.  Spot treatments are notoriously unreliable for eliminating drywood termite infestations in homes.

The committee adjourned after approximately a three hour meeting.  Smiles all around. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's news in entomology?

Portland, Oregon, site of this year's ESA
meeting, is a short drive from many natural
wonders, including Punch Bowl Falls in the
Columbia Gorge area.
Some 20 years ago, shortly after being hired as extension entomologist, I figured I would save money by not attending the annual conference of the Entomological Society of America. In retrospect, that decision ranked as one of the poorest choices of my professional life.

The year I skipped ESA was like being lost in space--as if I had missed out on all the advancements in my field for the previous 12 months.  The ESA annual conference is the best way I know to keep in touch with colleagues and learn about new advances in the science of insects.  The meeting covers everything from the most basic scientific theory to very practical topics in pest control. I haven't missed a meeting since that lost year.

This year the meetings were at the Portland Oregon Convention Center, with over 3,400 entomologists and about 3600 papers and posters. Every year after the meeting I like to go over my notes and highlight what I think were some of the most important bits of information.  So, as my gift to you, here are highlights from the very small slice of the conference that I experienced:
  • In Michigan and other Midwest states, an insect called the Emerald ash borer (EAB) has been devastating ash trees since 2002. Researchers are finding, however, that after a decade of expanding its range, some "good" bugs are coming to the rescue.  In the center of its new territory, parasitic wasps, both native and imported, have reduced EAB densities five-fold over their peak in 2005.  With EAB poised to invade Texas, this is especially good news.  Over the past ten years, several effective treatments have been discovered for this beetle.  Emamectin benzoate (TREEage), imidacloprid (Merit), dinotefuran (Safari) provide multiple years of control with one application. There is even an effective organic treatment.  Azadirachtin (TreeAzin 2) has been found to control EAB larvae for one year.
  • Molecular genetics has become a major, if not dominant, subject of presentations at the annual conference.  This year's keynote speaker, Fred Gould of North Carolina State University, spoke of the successes and potential of genetic pest management.  The science started with sterile insect releases that eradicated the screwworm fly and Med flies as early as the 1960s.  More recently genetic engineering has been developed to insert genes into a population of insects that might reduce its ability to be a pest.  For example genes have been discovered that might prevent a mosquito from becoming infected with a virus like West Nile.  Mosquitoes have been targets for this kind of genetic engineering research in the past 20 years, but a major challenge has been how to speed up the spread of desirable genes into the whole population.  Now a new version of this technology promises to solve this problem.  According to Gould, special genes have been designed that not only insert desirable genes into pest insect DNA, but also, like a computer virus, replicate itself within the pest's chromosomes.  Called homing endonuclease genes, this technology promises almost immediate results, unlike the older technology which might take years to take hold.  With this technology it is conceivable, says Gould, to completely eradicate a "bad" insect species. Of course implementation of this technology raises ethical questions, for which scientists will have to answer. If it works, it would be scary powerful.  
  • Have invasive ants finally met their match?  Two 2014 papers highlighted at this year's meeting suggest that fire ants and Argentine ants, two of our worst invasive ant species, have finally been out competed by other ants.  When encountering fire ants, the tawny crazy ant (TCA) covers itself with formic acid which forms a coating that protects from fire ant venom.  Researchers tested the importance of the TCA anal excretions by covering their little ant anuses with nail polish (I'd like to see how they did that).  When anuses were blocked almost half of the ants battling fire ants died.  When not covered, only 2% of the TCA died in battle with fire ants.  Cool.  Similarly the Asian needle ant is out-competing Argentine ants for prime nest sites. They do this by having better cold tolerance than Argentines.  Too bad that both of these new invaders are bad pests on their own.  People living with tawny crazy ants in Texas say they would rather have the fire ants. And Asian needle ants are supposed to have a wicked sting.
  • New insecticide formulations come around less often than new insecticides, but this year Syngenta Professional Products appears to have developed a promising new formulation for ant control. Based on polyacrilamide gel, the formulation consists of water-storing crystals that can hold an insecticide for long periods of time.  Add sugar, or a protein, and you have a product that can be applied dry like a granule, and expand with exposure to water into a highly attractive gel bait.  Imagining being able to bait an entire yard for sugar-loving ants with gel bait in the same amount of time that it takes to put out fire ant bait.  Reported by Purdue entomologist, Grzesiek Buczkowski, this formulation could provide better control of sugar- or protein-loving ants, including Argentine ants, odorous house ants, crazy ants and rover ants, among others.  This product is not yet on the market.
  • Now imagine baiting for bed bugs! Bait technologies have revolutionized cockroach and ant management, but because bed bugs feed only on blood, baits for bed bugs have been seen as impractical. Maybe until now. Research by Alvaro Romero, urban entomologist at New Mexico State University, appears to have solved at least one step in the complex problem of bait development for bed bugs.  Alvaro's group found a synthetic substitute for blood that bed bugs will feed on, and even gain weight with. If an effective method of delivery can be found, this could be a major advance in bed bug management at some time in the future.
  • Ebola virus was the subject of an informal symposium put together at the last minute by Extension entomologist Nancy Hinkle, University of Georgia.  The official line from the Centers for Disease Control is that no insect is a known vector for Ebola virus.  However, after a quick literature review of the potential for insects to serve as Ebola vectors it became clear that the book is not closed on this subject. While some research shows that Ebola transmission from mosquitoes is unlikely, medical entomologists are concerned about the potential for flies to serve as mechanical vectors of the virus.  In Africa, where several species of flies are commonly seen feeding on eyes and wounds of people, the potential for mechanical (carried on the external portions of the body rather than in the saliva or feces) transmission is feasible.  The group also discussed the potential for cockroaches and bed bugs to serve as Ebola vectors.  To date, it appears that no one in Africa, or with the CDC, has specifically investigated these potential vectors. The symposium participants agreed that the issue is important enough to justify writing a letter to the CDC urging funding for research into these pests in the near future.  
  • Speaking of human diseases, one of the more surprising announcements at the meetings this year was research by Brittany Blakely, of New Mexico State University, which showed that bed bugs may be able to transmit Trypanosoma cruzi, the pathogen that causes Chagas disease. If experimentally demonstrated with live animals, this would be the first human disease known to be carried by bed bugs.  But this is still just a theory. What Blakely and her team showed was that when bed bugs were fed on infected blood, the pathogen could be found in their bodies for at least 3 months.  The pathogen also remained with the bugs even through molting. At the same time we were learning these results, Penn State researchers announced last week l that they had successfully infected mice using bed bugs as a vector for T. cruzi. Because bed bugs are primarily human feeders, they would have to first feed on an infected person to become infected. According to the Red Cross, there may be as many as 100,000 people with the parasite in the U.S.  If bed bugs are proved to be capable of transmitting the disease between two humans (which hasn't happened yet), this could be a significant new twist on the bed bug problem.
  • The ACE (Associate Certified Entomologist) program at ESA is expanding this year with the launch of a new International ACE program.  A new test has been developed for PMPs outside the U.S. wishing to become certified.  In addition, the ESA is considering adding an ACE-Public Health certification to its program.  Some of the initial discussions about this option took place last week at the meeting and it appears that the National Mosquito Control Association is interested in the prospect of having ESA develop a test and certification.  
  • Lastly, I can't ignore the buzz about the Twitterverse any longer.  I have to admit that I've been slow to jump on the Twitter bandwagon, but after listening several very good talks last week I think I've been convinced to take the leap. I've been told that if I want to stay in touch with you and other (especially young) pest management professionals, this is something I need to do. Plus, last month at our fall IPM training conference I felt old when our new Extension turfgrass specialist casually put up his Twitter handle at the end of his talk and welcomed people to follow him. Not to be outdone by a young whippersnapper, here's my "handle" @mikemerchant.  I invite you to follow me on Twitter as I try to find my place in this increasingly wired world.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A large scale problem

This wax scale-infested holly could be the
key to controlling ants around your customer's
Ask most PMPs who specialize in structural pest control what they know about scale insects, and you'll get a blank stare. Pest management techs are typically taught little about insect pests of plants, especially tiny, non-descript pests that are frequently well-camouflaged from all but the most highly trained observers.

This is a mistake. A well-trained commercial or residential pest control PMP needs to know about plant pests, especially scales and their cousins the aphids, whiteflies and mealybugs. The key reason is that scales are part of the ecosystem surrounding the home or business, and can play an important role in insect life coming indoors...especially when it comes to ants.

You know ants. Only one of the most important pest issues for the industry around the world. The vast majority of indoor pest ants are sugar-loving.  But these ants don't get their sweet tooth from sheer gluttony (like us!); ants have evolved with a heavy reliance on sugary foods in the form of honeydew.

Honeydew is the sweet excretion product of many plant feeding insects, including scales, aphids, mealybugs, whiteflies and others. Most of us have experienced honeydew when parking a vehicle under a tree during the summer months. Those sticky drops all over the windshield were honeydew, or less delicately, insect poop.

Much like our obsession with sugar, ants have an interesting relationship with honeydew producing insects. It turns out that ants have been relying on the scale insects for so long that both scale and ant have become co-dependent. The ant gets a free, long-term, stationary food source. The scales benefit from the ants keeping down excess honeydew and mold on the old leaf, and even get protection from predators like lady beetles and parasitic wasps.

Ants that naturally feed on honeydew include carpenter ants, crazy ants, odorous house ant, Argentine ants, acrobat ants, rover ants and fire ants...and probably several others I'm forgetting at the moment.  If you're battling any of these critters on a regular basis, you might need to know something about why ants are attracted to your accounts in the first place.  In many cases it probably has something to do with the presence of scale insects around the building perimeter.

Sticky, shiny leaves are one tip-off that scale-like insects may
be feeding on your customers' plants.  Also look for waxy crusts
often associated with aphids, scales and mealybugs.  Honeydew
also serves to grow a black mold called "black sooty mold",
another unsightly clue to a problem.
A few years ago when industry giant (at the time) American Cyanamid was searching for an improved bait for carpenter ant control they turned to experts in insect honeydew for insight. Researchers found that mimicking some of the natural constituents of insect honeydew in an artificial bait was a good strategy for designing a more effective bait.

I'm not suggesting that all ants are attracted to your accounts just because of sugar-pooping pests, but I guarantee you that, when present, these insects will contribute to an ant problem. So what can be done? First of all, learn the signs of honeydew producing insects, and how to select some of the excellent control products on the market.

There's a lot to learn about scale insects--more than I can cover here; but if you're interested in learning a little more, check out this link to a PowerPoint presentation I'll be giving this week on the subject.  The topic is scale insects and their control. I hope the pictures and notes will give you an interesting introduction to the subject and a taste to learn more.  Speaking of taste, I think I hear a KitKat bar calling my name.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rats in the news

Norway rats scavenge left-over people food
in a New York city park. Photo by Mailman
School of Public Health, Columbia University.
Perhaps appropriate for the Halloween season, rats and rat mites have been in the news recently. It was reported last week that a study conducted on New York City rats found that rats carry even more diseases than we previously thought.  Scientists at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health identified several bacterial pathogens, including an E. coli, Salmonella, and Clostridium difficile, that cause mild to life-threatening gastroenteritis in people; Bartonella bacteria; and Seoul hantavirus, which causes Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever and kidney failure in humans. The study highlights the prevalence of these diseases in wild urban rodent populations, and the real risk of acute stomach and febrile illnesses carried to people from rodents.

The authors state that the study shows a need for improved pathogen surveillance and disease monitoring in urban environments.  I would add that these results also show the importance of rodent control to human health, as well as the need for pest management professionals to take precautions when handling dead rodents.

Along with the NYC rat report, came coverage last week of rat mites.  One reporter called them a worse scourge than bed bugs... something I disagree with, but a story that is sure to resonate with some of your customers with suspected mite problems.

Rat mites are tiny parasites that principally attack rodents.  The primary homes of rat mites are in the nests of rats and mice; but when the rodents are trapped or exterminated, the resident mite population may abandon the nest in search of other hosts.  Though rat mites cannot live on human blood, they will bite people, often leaving a red mark and blister.

The reason I don't consider rat mites to be as troublesome a pest as bed bugs is that rodent control will ultimately eliminate a rat mite problem--though mite control in a structure may still be needed to clean up residual mites that can linger in a home for several months.

The other, more scholarly story in the news this week is a study that appears to show a connection between rat mites and Bartonella infections in two dogs and a human.  In a study reported by researchers from North Carolina State University, several raccoons were trapped and removed from a New York home.  After removal, the house living area became infested with rat mites, Ornithonyssus bacoti, many of which were removed from the animals and some of which were collected by the homeowner.  Both the dogs and the homeowner subsequently became ill, and blood tests revealed the presence of Bartonella henselea, a bacterial pathogen best known for causing "cat scratch disease".

Bartonella is known to be transmitted from cats and dogs via fleas and ticks, but this was the first time rat mites have been implicated in transmission (It's important to note that the researchers couldn't conclusively prove that the mites transmitted the disease, as ticks were also found on one dog. Also they did not rule out the presence of rodents or fleas in the home, but the timing and series of the events, along with the large number of mites and visible bites on both dogs and the person in the house provide good circumstantial evidence of the mite's role).

I gleaned a couple of points from this paper.  First, although the paper did not in my mind conclusively prove the raccoon as host and source of the mites, the close association of the raccoon removal and mite infestation seem to suggest that rat mites could infest raccoons. Raccoons are a relatively common wildlife invader of homes in Texas and throughout the U.S., and these results potentially impact many pest control jobs.  Second, I was unaware of the potential disease problem associated with rat mites.  The potential for rat mites to transmit disease appears to be low, or else there would be many more instances in the literature; nevertheless, this paper is something we in the pest control industry should be aware of--not only for our customers, but also when treating for rodent or bird mites. If a technician is going into a situation with lots of biting mites, it would be prudent to provide protective gear, including gloves and protective overalls sealed at ankles and wrists.

Lastly, I was reminded that when a real rodent mite problem exists, it is normally not too difficult to collect mites.  In this case the homeowner had no problem seeing and collecting mites for the pest control company and researchers.  This is not the case with many submitters of "mites" to my office. This year I've received dozens of samples of suspected mites from people who are convinced they are being attacked by mites. In most of these cases the sample submitters have been unable to provide an actual mite specimen. This is often a case of a misinformed customer who has been led astray by poor information on the Internet, or from poorly informed friends. For customers who will not take a diagnosis of no mites, regardless of repeated efforts to get samples, the situation may be one of delusions.

Once again the importance of pest control is supported by scientific research. It's important for you and your employees to remember every day that the service your pest control company provides is important. Rodents simply cannot be tolerated in homes, schools, food plants, businesses or multifamily apartments.  And it's not just a matter of aesthetics. Even when rodents are present but out of sight, remember that many rodent diseases are transmitted by airborne dust from rodent urine and droppings.  It's critical that we are protected not just from seeing rodents, but from being exposed in any form to rodents in our buildings.

If we're talking scary, forget the zombie costumes or Ebola scare stories this Halloween.  A much more real risk is that of unwanted contact with rodents and their mites and diseases.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Fall IPM Seminar in Dallas November 6

Rose rosette disease is one of the subjects being
discussed at this year's IPM Seminar
Fall is here, and so is time for our annual Fall Integrated Pest management Seminar held at the Dallas Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center. This program is one I've been involved with since the early 1990s, and I and the staff at A&M take special pride in trying to put together programs with qualified speakers talking on topics that are fresh and not the same old thing every year.

Our goal is to help you to learn things that you will actually be able to put to work in your daily profession as a pesticide applicator.  As always you will receive five CEU credits for the day.  The CEUs are good for either structural or agriculture (3A) licenses. The focus of this training is traditionally on pests of turf and ornamentals; but if you work for a pest control company that does T&O work, you should find this training very useful and appropriate.

This year's speakers include:
  • Janet Hurley providing information about changes coming to EPA labels;
  • Dr. Matt Elmore, will tell us how to tackle tough Texas weeds;
  • Laura Miller, horticulture agent from Tarrant County, will discuss the relatively new rose rosette disease and its management;  
  • My long-time colleague, Dr. Allen Knutson, will provide some background on how biological control has been used in outdoor IPM programs for both insects and weeds;
  • and I will discuss the often tough problem of scale insects and their control.
Over 300 people typically attend the Fall IPM Seminar each
year for the good speakers, CEUs and a good lunch
(in that order, we hope).
I'm especially pleased this year to be able to introduce Dr. Matt Elmore as our new turfgrass specialist, following the retirement last year of Dr. Jim McAfee.  Matt knows he's got big shoes to fill, but is ready and eager to meet all of you in the industry and learn about the challenges of turfgrass management in our part of the country. If any of you get the chance to meet him anytime soon, give him a warm Texas welcome.

Online registration is open for this year's class at Just click on Fall  IPM Seminar for online registration.  You can download a copy of the program brochure at the Conference Registration page, or by clicking here

Friday, September 26, 2014

Webinar makes learning about bed bugs easy

Do you service apartment complexes or other multifamily housing units?  Or are you a pest management professional with an apartment manager who needs to learn more about bed bugs? You and your customer might benefit from a recent webinar on bed bugs sponsored by the StopPests Now program for Multifamily Housing (yes, there really is such a group).

I think hindsight will show that multifamily housing, even more than hotels, has been ground zero for the current bed bug epidemic in this country. That's because apartment dwellers often lack the means to hire top notch bed bug control services, apartment management policies often discourage residents from reporting bed bugs early, many residents are limited in their ability to detect and correct bed bugs early, and the close quarters of apartments makes it easy for bed bugs to spread through high density housing. Add to that the high turnover rate of apartment dwellers with bed bugs, and the bed bug's excellent hitchhiking skills, and you have a spreading bed bug epidemic.

Webinar presenters, Dr. Dini Miller and entomologist Molly Stedfast, have been conducting research of bed bugs in multifamily housing for ten years.  They share results of this research, along with basic information about bed bugs that any PMP or apartment manager needs to know. Dr. Miller, especially, is a straight shooter who has strong words for apartment managers, in particular, those who would just as soon not have to deal with these difficult pests.

Don't let the hour and twenty minute run time deter you. Thanks to the fast talking presenters, this webinar doesn't drag, and has been edited to eliminate most of the down time associated with most webinars.  So kick back, grab a cold beverage and click on the video above. I think you'll find that the time you spend in this training well worth it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bargain reference books for your business

The venerable Mallis Handbook is a great
resource for pest control businesses.
I am frequently asked (especially by prospective ACEs studying for their certification exam) what reference books I recommend.  There are many of course, but one of the essential resources for any pest control company is "Mallis".

Arnold Mallis passed away in 1984, but the book he pioneered and first published in 1945 continues to get updated and republished by the Mallis Handbook Company and GIE publishing.  Many PMPs today don't realize what shaky ground, scientifically speaking, PMPs were on prior to giants like Arnold Mallis and Walter Ebeling and a few university leaders who saw the need for good, science-based information for the industry.  Mallis remains one of the standard sources to go to for scientifially sound information about structural insect pests and pest management.

Don't get me wrong. At 1600 pages, this is not pleasure reading... unless you're looking for a book to help you fall asleep at night.  But as a reference book, the Handbook of Pest Control is excellent. I wish every pest control company had a copy.

The reason I decided to say a few words about the Mallis Handbook is that Pest Control Technology just announced a moving sale. If you don't have a copy of this book, for a limited time you can buy a copy for half the normal $149 price.  If I didn't have a copy of the Tenth Edition already, I would jump on it. In fact many of the books in the PCT bookstore are on sale, and there are some good ones.  Other favorites on sale include Bobby Corrigan's Rodent Control: A Practical Guide for Pest Mgmt Professionals, and any of the PCT Field Guides.

A wise professor of mine once told me that the savviest professionals aren't the ones who know it all; they're the ones who know where to find the answer.  And believe it or not, not all the best information can be found online. Sometimes nothing beats having a good, old-fashioned book at your fingertips.

Monday, August 25, 2014

New Extension urban entomologist hired

Last week the Department of Entomology at Texas A&M hired a new extension urban entomologist. After a national search, Dr. Robert Puckett was the successful candidate for what is essentially a new position designed to serve the public and the pest control industry in Texas.

Many of you already know Dr. Puckett through his position as Dr. Roger Gold's Associate Research Scientist, a position he has held since 2012.  Robert got his BA and MS in biology at Sam Houston State University and came to Texas A&M in 2003.  He earned his Ph.D. in Entomology in 2008, studying the biology and ecology of fire ant-attacking phorid flies.  After that he joined the Center for Urban and Structural Entomology in 2008 as an assistant research scientist.

Robert has a great balance of research and extension experience, and a strong desire to work in the extension field. So, what does an extension entomologist do?  Robert will continue to seek funding and design research projects relating to urban insect pests, much as he has done in the past.  But he will also assume some key extension education duties related to the structural pest control industry.  For example, he will largely run the annual Texas A&M winter pest management conference held in College Station.  He will also assume leadership of the Philip J. Hamman Termite Training School, and the Orkin termite correspondence course.  He will also be available to respond to speaking requests from your associations and other continuing education providers around the state.

In many respects, Robert's position is similar to mine, but based in College Station. He will hold an office in the new Center for Urban Entomology labs, and will be expected to work very closely with Dr. Ed Vargo after Dr. Gold's retirement in January 2015. The new position was intended, in part, to take some of the extension-related duties that Dr. Gold shouldered for many years, and free the new Endowed Chair to engage more completely with his research duties.

For those who worry that the Endowed Chair will be less accessible, I think you will find the opposite.  I know Dr. Vargo is very interested in engaging with the industry, perhaps with more use of social networking software like Twitter and Facebook.  But the bottom line is that this new position is more evidence of Texas A&M's commitment to adequately support the urban pest control industry with the best research information and service.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Puckett to his new position.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

IPM Experience House: A training venue for pest control professionals

The structure for the planned IPM Experience
House already exists.  The house is an old
dormitory that will be remodeled as an extension
facility for pest control training.
How many hours have you spent in classrooms trying to improve your professional knowledge? Can you guess how many PowerPoint presentations you have sat through for the sake of CEU credits?  Now ask yourself, how many hours have you spent practicing new skills under the supervision of a knowledgeable teacher--someone who provided immediate feedback on your performance? Most of us would probably say we’ve spent a lot more time sitting than doing.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with a good classroom presentation.  But most of us also need hands-on instruction to help us grow and retain new ideas.  That’s the idea behind the IPM Experience House, a planned training facility at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas.
IPM Experience House will be modeled after similar training facilities at the University of Florida and at the Orkin House in Atlanta, GA.  The idea is to provide a site where PMPs can practice new skills while getting feedback from teachers and fellow students. 

Wall cut-aways in the Orkin House remind
technicians what's behind the walls of a home.  
Features of the House will include wall cutaways to see normally hidden construction features, actual and mock insect damage, and sites to practice pesticide application.  The facility will include both an existing house retrofitted specially for pest control training, and an outdoor pavilion.  The pavilion will provide a year-round site to observe and interact with different construction features, such as crawl spaces, chimneys, and various foundations and walls.  The house will include a residential and commercial kitchen, hospital room, hotel room and possibly a mock daycare room. 

Besides the visible structure of the house, a critical part of Experience House is a behind-the-scenes curriculum.  Each feature of the house will be built with a learning objective and lesson plan in mind. The House will be set up to allow for different lessons to be tailored to each group.  Apprentices and technician trainees will have a set of training exercises for beginners, while advanced technicians and certified applicators will have more advanced courses to choose from.

An outdoor pavilion, similar to this structure at the
University of Florida's Pest Management University, is
planned as part of Phase II of the project.
Some have asked, why Dallas?  Why not build in College Station?  Since at least 1980 Texas A&M has had an urban entomology presence in Dallas. The Dallas Center currently houses two urban entomology staff, including myself and Janet Hurley, with the school IPM program.  In addition, Dallas is a regular training site for the Ag and Environmental Safety Department when training new technicians.  The Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex is also a major Texas pest control market.  Of the almost 15,000 certified pesticide applicators, techs and apprentices in Texas, about 28% work within a 1.5 hour drive of the Center.  This means that businesses can minimize training time and travel expenses by having a training site that is convenient and local.

IPM Experience House is further evidence of the Texas A&M University System’s commitment to the pest control industry. Experience House will complement the new Center for Urban and Structural Entomology and the Philip J. Hamman Termite Control Training School at the Texas A&M main and Riverside campuses, respectively, in Bryan/College Station. Together with the hiring of a new endowed chair of urban entomology, these activities reflect a time of tremendous growth for the relationship between the Texas pest control industry and the University.

The IPM Experience House has been, and will be, a team effort.  Since last year a group of 16 local business owners and industry reps have met as an advisory committee to craft a vision and a plan for the project. Out of this committee came a fundraising campaign and draft blueprint for the site.  By taking advantage of an existing building on the AgriLife campus, a currently unused student dormitory, the committee realized that building costs for the project could be kept to a minimum.  We estimate the cost of remodeling the existing dorm and constructing a 50 x 100 foot outdoor pavilion will be $250,000.  So far, through the generous donations of individuals, our local associations, and local pest control businesses and support industry, we have raised approximately $170,000 in external donations toward this cost.  The committee and I hope to start construction within the next six months.

We still need your help to make Experience House happen.  While Texas AgriLife is providing the land and the existing building, and a significant chunk of start-up dollars, it’s up to the pest control industry to help make this new training facility a reality.  If you or your company are interested in giving to IPM Experience House, click here to download a pledge card.  To learn more about the project, and see a blueprint of the building, visit

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why Associate?

OK, so I'm not a pest control business owner, technician or pest control salesman. And maybe I don't have a full vote on this issue. But for what it's worth, I wish every honest businessman and technician involved in the pest control industry was involved in a pest control association.

I've always viewed membership in a pest control association as a sign that a company cares about good pest control as much as it cared about making money.  If someone asks me who I recommend to call for a certain pest problem, I steer them to association members.  Belonging to an association, in my mind, is a sign of professionalism.

Maintaining a successful pest control association isn't easy. It means having good volunteers and leaders. Being involved often means extra nights away from home, sitting on a committee or finding time in a busy day to make some extra phone calls or write emails. It may involve rubbing elbows with the competition--even people you may not like that much.  But I believe the payback over the long run can literally be priceless.

Technicians from the Greater Dallas Pest Control Association
setting off  last fall on an annual "Slug A Bug" event to provide
free pest control service to deserving low income families.
I've been especially reminded of the value of local pest control groups recently.  This summer I was privileged to speak at meetings of the Fort Worth, Dallas, east Texas, and Houston area pest control associations. I heard stories of brothers providing support for brothers, parties and bowling events, lobbying efforts, and low income assistance projects.  I saw education taking place through monthly speakers, and I saw good people trying to make their industry something that anyone would be proud to belong to.  And, not least, I saw a bunch of folks who genuinely liked one another and obviously valued their professional friendships.

The Greater Dallas Pest Control Association has struggled with membership some in recent years, but continues to hold their annual Slug-A-Bug event to benefit needy families.  Working with our local People Helping People group, the GDPCA has set a goal to help 60-80 families each year with what is often a sorely needed pest control treatment.  It's an effort to reach out to folks who don't have much, and make the community a better, more caring place.  If you are interested in being involved, they would love if you would "like" their Facebook page and sign up to get involved. The next Slug-A-Bug event is coming soon, September 17, and they are still looking for volunteers.

Members of the Tarrant and Dallas Pest Control Associations
showed their desire to improve technician training with two
generous checks to the Texas A&M Foundation in July.
The Greater Tarrant County (Fort Worth) Pest Control Association blew my socks off last month by making a donation to the IPM Experience House Project, a new venture to develop a hands-on pest control training facility in the Dallas area (more about this in a future post).  In fact, three of the local associations have donated to Experience House, but it's the Tarrant County group that really knows how to party.  They got together with the Dallas group presented Texas A&M Research Foundation with two giant Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes checks.  I've always thought it would be cool to get a giant check like that, and now I have two (I'm still figuring out how to cash them)!  Together the two associations combined for a total of $8,000 donation. This kind of excitement and enthusiasm only happens when a diverse group of folks works together.

I had never attended the Greater Houston Pest Control Association before, but boy are they are organized and well run!  Their board had more active members show up for the pre-meeting meeting than some associations.  Well over 50 people attended the June meeting, and it was a lot of fun. These folks were also the first association to make a donation to the Experience House project, even though most of their business is done a good four hour drive from the future training facility. The only good explanation is that they take an old fashioned pride in their industry.

The East Texas Pest Control Association met at Spring Creek Barbecue (a favorite of mine) in Tyler the night I visited.  President Carl Lane and the leaders of this group are very dedicated to growing their association, and to do so they alternate meeting locations between Tyler and Lufkin, so that their brethren living an hour and a half south feel like a real part of the group. What a nice group of folks; I wish I lived a little closer.

I could talk all day about our local associations, but the picture would be incomplete without mentioning the parent state and national pest management association offices. In Texas our local associations choose to work under the umbrella of our state (TPCA) and national association (NPMA). This gives them political clout in Austin and Washington that they otherwise wouldn't have. And it supports all the good educational and professional services these associations provide. But it all starts at the local level.

I know that some members of NPMA choose not to get involved in their local chapters, but I think they're missing out on the best part of being in an association.  If you haven't yet gotten involved in your local group, I encourage you to try it.  It might not always be easy, but I'm betting it will be mostly good--for you and your community.  You might even figure out you really like some of your competitors after all.

For a list of the 17 local chapters of the Texas Pest Control Association, click here.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Brits have mystery bugs too

Mites, like this rodent mite, are often blamed for mysterious
"bites" by sufferers of delusions of parasitosis.  But real mites
are rarely found in such cases.
A British weekly cultural and current affairs magazine, The New Statesman, yesterday published an article by a physician, Phil Whitaker, on his encounter with a delusional parasitosis patient.  I found it interesting because the description of how he handled a sufferer of delusions of parasitosis, a not-uncommon condition encountered by PMPs here "across the water" in the U.S.

Delusions of parasitosis is a mental illness in which the sufferer complains of non-existent insects or mites crawling on their skin, biting, or burrowing into their bodies.  In the past a clinical symptom of the condition was frequently referred to as "the matchbox sign". This came from the observation that sufferers often carried to the pest control professional, or physician, a small matchbox supposedly containing samples of a parasitic insect that was making life miserable.  Today, it's more likely to be a ziploc bag or plastic pill jar, or pieces of tape on a sheet of paper carrying the mystery samples.

The only point in his article on which I would disagree with Dr. Whitaker is the frequency, at least here in the States, of delusional parasitosis. He calls it rare. Based on stories I hear from likely delusional patients, I don't think it is. If I can believe half of the stories, doctors--at least here in the big city, Dallas--seem to be pretty aware, and a little gun shy, of anyone coming into their office complaining of "invisible bugs".  From my perspective it seems like the medical community could better help these patients by being better informed of the illness and of the available treatments.  This is a serious and highly disruptive mental illness, and one that often leaves pest management professionals confused and frustrated.

Our role in the pest management field is, of course, to take all complaints of biting pests seriously.  After all, our expertise is, or should be, to be very familiar with all biting pests likely to be in a home. Bird and rodent mite calls seem to be more common this year than ever before, a situation I blame on some very bad information being promoted on the Internet.  To learn more about biting mites, what they can and can't do, check out my biting mites in homes fact sheet.  And for a more general publication to share with customers who complain of mystery bugs, click here.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Expected benefit of treating crape myrtles for new scale

Two ‘Natchez’ crape myrtles demonstrate the potential impact of bark scale on the size and number of blooms in early summer. The tree on the left was treated seven weeks earlier with the insecticide dinotefuran, the one on the right was left untreated. Note the smaller blooms and mold-covered bark on the untreated tree. Click on the image for a closer view. Photo by Jim Robbins, U of Arkansas.
Earlier this year I posted some information about a new scale pest that is attacking crape myrtle trees in Texas and other parts of the south. It is called the crape myrtle bark scale, Eriococcus lagerstroemiae, and its range continues to expand. This year the scale has jumped from north Texas to College Station and, more recently, Sugarland in the Houston area.

We do not see this scale killing crape myrtle; but like many sap-feeding scale insects, these little scales can stress and reduce the appearance of the trees. They also produce large amounts of sticky "honeydew" that can coat the leaves and anything under the tree (including freshly washed cars). Thanks to Drs. John Hopkins and Jim Robbins of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, we can now show you what we believe is likely to be another impact of these scales on trees--namely, smaller flower clusters and reduced blooming.

The above picture was taken of two trees at a church in Little Rock, Arkansas.  The tree on the left was treated with Zylam® Systemic Insecticide on the 28th of  May, and the one on the right was left untreated.  Zylam® (active ingredient dinotefuran) was applied as a drench in 5 gallons of water between the trunk and a circle three feet away from the trunk.  The picture was taken seven weeks after the treatment was made. Note that this picture is not the same as a scientific trial, which would involve more trees to ensure that the differences seen here were not accidental.  Nevertheless, according to Dr. Hopkins, scale numbers and honeydew were noticeably less on the treated tree.  And there was a difference in the average bloom size between the treated and untreated tree, with blooms being noticeably larger on the treated tree.

John estimated that the cost to treat the tree on the left with Zylam would be approximately $39--not cheap, especially with multiple trees to treat.  But at least you, and your customer, can see what the expected benefit from a tree treatment might look like.  For a consumer-oriented discussion of the scale, clip and use this link:

What about the bees?
To date the most promising treatments for crape myrtle bark scale have been the neonicotinoid insecticides,  Readers of this blog should know about the growing concern about the impact of soil-applied neonicotinoid insecticides on honey bee and pollinator health.  So should we be using these products on a flowering tree like crape myrtle? Although date on pollination rates on crape myrtle seem to be lacking, these trees do not appear to be highly attractive to bees (entomophilic). Currently I don't believe that a properly applied soil insecticide (following label directions) will have any significant impact on foraging bees.  But if anything changes in that formula, I'll be sure to let you know. And be sure to read the labels on these neonicotinoid products carefully.  New, pollinator-friendly labels are coming to the market this year.  In the meantime, Extension will continue to look for less susceptible varieties of crape myrtle and possibly safer, less costly treatments for this scale.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Understanding chikungunya

The black and white Asian tiger mosquito is one of the two most common potential vectors of chikungunya nationwide

Fortunately for all of us who live and work in the U.S., insect-borne disease is not rampant in our country. But this isn't something to take for granted either, as we have seen this summer with the rapid spread of the chikungunya (chik-un-GOON-ya) virus throughout the Caribbean.

Over 30 years ago as a graduate student taking a course in medical entomology, I learned about all kinds of diseases spread by insects.  By far, most of these were tropical and exotic-sounding. Chikungunya virus was one of those diseases I memorized way back then, and have since mostly forgotten.

Chikungunya was first described in 1952 during an outbreak in southern Tanzania (east Africa).  The name comes from the Makonde language and means "that which bends up", referring to the contorted, bent-over appearance due to joint pain suffered by those who contract the disease.  Sounds bad, doesn't it?

While not as serious as some mosquito-borne diseases, including malaria or Eastern equine encephalitis, or even the neurological form of West Nile virus, this virus is nothing to sneeze at.  While some people have mild cases, it frequently comes with a very bad headache, joint pain, rash and fever.  There is no treatment for chikungunya, and there is no vaccine to protect you if you go where the disease is active.

When I learned about chikungunya in college, it was found only in eastern Africa and parts of India and Southeast Asia.  That distribution has spread in recent years as outbreaks occurred in parts of western Africa and Europe.  In December 2013 the first epidemic on our side of the world was reported when the disease made the jump into the islands of the Caribbean.  Since the beginning of 2014 the disease has been spreading like wildfire, with more than a quarter million cases, and over 20 fatalities in the Caribbean. 

Chikungunya has been on the radar of U.S. health officials in recent years largely because its vectors are very common in our country.  The principal mosquito vectors of chikungunya are in the genus Aedes. They include the Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, and its close relative, the yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti. These are the species that inevitably bite me whenever I chance a trip outside without repellent in my backyard here in the Dallas area.

Unlike West Nile virus, birds are not a part of the chikungunya disease cycle.  As far as we know, the virus is only viable in mosquitoes and primates.  In Africa, the disease lurks both within humans and non-human primates, such as baboons and monkeys.  For the virus to take hold here in the U.S., it would have to be common enough to reach an epidemic tipping point.  This would occur when enough people were infected to start a cycle from human to mosquito to human again.

We may not have yet reached that tipping point, but we could get there easily.  In July the first locally acquired cases were reported in Florida. These were the first cases where the victims had not recently traveled to the Caribbean, or other places where the disease is endemic. According to the CDC, between 2006 and 2013 the U.S. averaged about 28 cases of chikungunya annually from travelers. In the first six months of 2014 alone there were 243 travel-associated cases in the U.S.  And, according to a July 15 release by the Texas Department of State Health Services, five cases have been reported in Texas so far this summer.

So should you or your customers be worried about chikungunya?  If you plan travel to the Caribbean this year, definitely!  Make sure to carry repellent and use it liberally during your travels to any Caribbean island. At home there is little risk yet; but this could change.  As the number of sick travelers returning from Caribbean cruises and high school missions trips increases, the risk of locally acquired chikungunya will increase.

All of this increases the value and importance of all residential pest control services, especially where Aedes mosquitoes are active. Technicians servicing homes should be on the lookout for any sources of standing water.  These may take the form of storm sewer catchment basins, leaking septic systems, containers or plastic items that catch and hold water, house plant pots with dishes that hold water, bird baths, wheel barrows, boat covers and other items. You may not be servicing your account specifically for mosquitoes, but pointing out mosquito risk factors is an add-on service to your customer and can increase your value in their eyes.

If you have a newsletter or email service to your customers, now's a great time to remind them of the four Ds:
  • Drain and dump standing water 
  • Dusk and dawn are the highest risk times for mosquitoes (though the Aedes mosquitoes are active all day) 
  • Dress in long sleeved shirts and long pants when outdoors 
  • DEET is an ingredient to look for in your insect repellent (or another effective choice such as lemon oil of eucalyptus, picaridin, p-menthane 3,8-diol or IR3535). 
For more information about where mosquitoes can breed, and how to identify Aedes and other mosquitoes, see

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A bug by any other name...

A stink bug belongs to the suborder
Heteroptera and is an example of a
"true bug". All true bugs have piercing/
sucking mouthparts, and go through
a gradual form of metamorphosis.
Every student in their first college entomology class gets introduced to the major types of insects, among which is a relatively large group of insects known as heteropterans (formerly referred to as hemipterans). And any entomology professor worth their salt dutifully teaches every student the rule that heteropterans are the only insects that can be considered "true bugs". That's what I was taught, but like most of my fellow entomologists, I've never really known why. So today, when I was asked by a teacher...who had been asked by a 5th grader, I figured I needed to do some research. What I learned was interesting, and even has a very contemporary urban entomology connection.

In my experience Americans commonly use the term "bug" very loosely to mean any very small critter, insect or otherwise. In this way a spider can be referred to as a bug, or a pesky gnat as a bug. This doesn't bother me too much, but sometimes you sense a kind of superiority among some people who use the term "bug" this way. "I'll squash you like a bug!" Or, "It's just a buuug!"

And who in the industry has not been referred to as either "bug guy" or "bug lady" when showing up at a pest control account? Although I like bugs in general, and consider work associated with insects to be important and honorable, I never particularly cared for the name applied to my profession--perhaps because of the inferior connotations associated with bugs in many people's thinking.

It's interesting how language works on a word. The term bug has crept its way into a lot of other uses, including meaning germs that makes you sick, like the "flu-bug".  Or as the verb referring to the act of acting or being annoying, as in the complaint: "Stop bugging me!"

The first "real" computer "bug" is kept at the Smithsonian
National Museum of American History, though it is
not currently on display. 
Maybe one of the more interesting modern spin offs of the term bug comes from modern technology. Computer programmers often refer to a software problem as a "computer bug". Supposedly, the origin of this use of "bug" has historical roots in one of the earliest computer snafus (another word with an interesting WWII origin).  An early electro-mechanical computer, the Mark II, a predecessor of modern digital computers, stopped working one day and the problem was traced to a moth that had gotten stuck in a relay.

But how did the entomological form of the word bug get its start?  And why do entomologists get so hung up on folks who misuse the word to refer to something not technically a heteropteran?

It turns out that the term "bug" probably does have a semi-scientific origins connected to entomology. According to Carl Schaeffer, author of an article on heteropterans (Prosorrhyncha) in the Encyclopedia of Insects, the term "bug" comes from the old Middle English word bugge, which meant "spirit" or "ghost".  According to another favorite reference of mine, Roland Wilbur Brown's Composition of Scientific Words, the word may also be derived from the Welsh word bwg, for "hobgoblin", "spectre" or "sprite".  The word even shows up in some of Shakespeare's writings to refer to bogeymen or other terrifying forces.  Obviously the Welsh and the English were referring to the same thing... but what?

Were bed bugs the original bugge?
Shaeffer supposed that in earlier times when people woke up in the morning and discovered their skin covered in red itchy welts and blood on the bed, they naturally would assume that they had been visited by malevolent spirits, or bugges.  And as you've probably guessed, the welts experienced by sleepers in Merrie Olde England were not likely caused by wraiths or spirits, but by little flesh-and-blood insects that today we call bed bugs.  Presumably the more enlightened Englishmen and Welshmen quickly realized the true cause of nighttime welts and began referring to the insects themselves as bugges.  And eventually, by extension, all relatives of bed bugs were also called bugs--though entomologists apparently decided to keep their use of the term to only the bed bug relatives, today's heteropterans.

So bed bugs are most likely the original bugge, or bwg, according to Schaeffer. The next time you hear someone seem to dismissively refer to bugs, or the profession devoted to pest control, consider that for many bugs still remain a scary part of life. What entomologists and PMPs do is help keep the bugs and other pests out.  That's a worthwhile service and, not surprisingly, one people will always pay for. And as Shakespeare himself might have put it, "What's in a name? That which we call a bug, would it by any other name... drum up as much business?" Perhaps not.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Temperature: the key to fire ant baiting

soil thermometer
A simple soil thermometer can tell you the optimal times
of year and times of day for fire ant bait application.
Fire ant baits are wonderful tools for managing fire ants.  They are relatively inexpensive, require little labor to apply as broadcast treatments, and are safe for both applicators and the environment.  One of the biggest limitations of baits is that they cannot be used all year round. Instead applications must be timed to periods when fire ants are actively looking for food, foraging in ant worker lingo.

Many years ago a researcher at Florida State University, named Sanford Porter, spent an entire year (three times a day, once a week) monitoring fire ants coming to little bits of hot dog. Along the way he carefully monitored surface and below-ground soil temperatures, relative humidity, time of day, soil moisture, rainfall, and air temperature.  Porter found that by far the best predictor of fire ants foraging (and thus, when they are most likely to find and collect bait) was when the temperature of the soil at 2 cm (a little less than an inch-deep) was between 72 and 97 degrees F.

It makes sense that fire ants would be most sensitive to soil temperatures at this depth, as this is about how deep fire ants travel in their foraging tunnels, where they travel 90% of the time.  In Porter's study, fire ants nearly always found baits when the soil temperature was in the favored range.

This morning and afternoon I went outdoors and took the soil temperature in the lawn surrounding my office in Dallas, TX.  The temperatures at one inch averaged between 74 and 82 degrees, in morning and afternoon. This is the sweet spot for fire ants, and indicates that all day today would be a great time to use fire ant baits.

Typically we suggest fire ant bait applications in north Texas be limited to the months of May through September.  This ideal baiting time will vary from one location to another, but the soil temperature rule of thumb should be consistent.  If you're not sure when to apply fire ant baits, check the soil temperature with a metal temperature probe.

Daily temperature fluctuations

Besides time of year, soil temperature is also influenced by time of day. Right now, on the grounds surrounding my office, anytime during the day would be a good time to broadcast fire ant bait. But as any seasoned Texan will tell you, there's a mighty big difference in temperatures between May and July.  In July soil temperatures, even at one inch-depth, soar well over 100 degrees, effectively shutting down most fire ant foraging during the day.

The best time to apply fire ant bait during the summer months is late in the day, in the evening. Bait applied in the morning hours, even when soil temperatures are still favorable, will quickly be exposed to high temperatures and high UV intensity, both of which are likely to render bait less palatable to ants.  By applying bait late in the day, it will be available to fire ants during their most favored time for foraging, throughout the night.

For more information about baiting for fire ants, see our publications on Managing Imported Fire Ants in Urban Areas and Broadcast Baits for Fire Ant Control.